Length: 1 mile, out-and-back
Why we love it: The 30-foot waterfall is as thrilling as it is mysterious, no matter what time of year you go
When to go: Anytime—summer is best for maximum cascade flows, and winter offers the possibilities of enchanting icicles and frozen streams
Pre- or post-hike buzz: Stop by Pass Key 50 West Restaurant in Pueblo for hearty fare (order the sausage sandwich)
Restrooms: Outhouse at the trailhead
Dogs: Yes, on leash
Just a few miles south of Great Sand Dunes National Park, at the base of the 14,345-foot Blanca Peak in the Rio Grande National Forest, there’s a special treasure hidden in the back of a rocky cavern: Zapata Falls.
This 30-foot waterfall is a prime and easy pit stop for those looking to escape crowds in the national park and score an intimate view of one of Colorado’s rarest geological commodities—a hidden waterfall. While the falls themselves aren’t the most spectacular on earth, the fact that they are concealed inside a cave lends them a special marvel, not to mention novelty. Altogether, expect to spend up to an hour exploring this area, making this hike particularly suitable for families with children and dogs.
A short, wide trail leaves east from the well-signed parking lot and winds between pinyon pine and cottonwood trees for about a quarter mile, then turns south for another quarter mile toward the mouth of a rocky cavern, from which a stream flows. Along the way, stop and read the informational signs posted every few hundred feet; you’ll learn about the eclectic history of the people, geography, and ecology of the San Luis Valley in fun, digestible tidbits.
The 30-foot cascades are tucked in the back of the cavern, just a half-mile from the trailhead. To enter the cave, which allows you to view the falls from a safe distance, walk gingerly across the rocks in the shallow stream that pours from the cave’s mouth. In the summer, while the flow is full, you might get a little wet, but in the winter, the stream quickly freezes into clear, blue ice, so you can carefully make your way over the surface and through the arched entryway that’s been diligently smoothed by centuries of water flow.
From here, there are numerous boulders to stand on and marvel at the falls without getting sprayed too much by its breathtaking mist. In the winter, the falls are known to congeal into an icy sculpture, freezing the water’s movement in time. To return to the trailhead, simply head back the way you came.
Bonus: In the warmer months, set up camp in one of the spacious Zapata Falls Campground sites, and stick around to catch the sunset from the parking lot, as views of Great Sand Dunes National Park that abut the Crestone Peaks across the valley light up in blushed, electric hues. If you stay overnight, the next morning you can summit Blanca Peak or easily reach the Sand Dunes for a sunrise jaunt.
Getting there: From Denver, take I-25 south and travel about 160 miles. Take exit 50 for US-160 W and after 57 miles, turn right onto CO-150 N. Follow this road for 11 miles, then turn right, following signs for Zapata Falls Campground. This washboard road can be rough, but is readily doable in a 2WD vehicle.